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I’m Not Alarmed By Religious ‘Nones.’ You Shouldn’t Be, Either

I’m Not Alarmed By Religious ‘Nones.’ You Shouldn’t Be, Either

At the end of the day, I’m not too alarmed by the religious “nones.” 

The “nones” — people who reply “nothing in particular” or “none” when asked for their religious affiliation — are a hot topic in Christian circles. They’re growing rapidly, at the same time a number of mainstream Christian denominations dwindle. As much as 40% of Gen Z falls into this demographic, and millennials aren’t far behind.

They’re an interesting and diverse group. To be sure, we should certainly be concerned that this many people — particularly young, talented people — feel so deeply alienated from the church. We should also be curious as to why.

In my experience, religious “nones” have conflated the institutional Church with the hope and love of the real Jesus. Their openness to God is connected to our capacity to live like Jesus.

But it’s important to keep in mind that “living like Jesus” isn’t restricted to our time at church. It’s much more radical, and it’s much more personal: It means modeling God’s overflowing love for all who encounter us, in all aspects of our lives. It means allowing His grace and His truth to shine through every part of our person. 

It also means our answer to the “nones” must be sincere friendship and personal excellence — however that might look for us in our current walk of life, or for them in theirs. The “problem” of religious nones is actually an opportunity for Christians to become more like the people Jesus is leading us to be. 

We are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, with our lives spent simply and humbly demonstrating the fruits of our faith. Let our example as family members, leaders, coworkers, recreational sports players and hobbyists draw people to us. Let our sincere and humble friendship edify those who seek it. 

After all, God did not come to call the righteous. He came to heal those wounded and blinded by sin. 

One of our callings as Christ’s hands and feet is to dine with “tax collectors and sinners,” as Jesus did. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

God will work through us, our jobs, our pastimes, our music preferences and our personal histories to reach those He calls to Him, “none” or not. God will use our unique talents, hardships and loves for His ends and for the good of those who seek Him.

After all, I didn’t start out wanting to work in ministry. I was a “none” for a long time. I didn’t even want to be a Christian, despite well-intended evangelizers’ best efforts. I went to a youth group in 1979 just to help a buddy win $20. I didn’t go back with that friend, and never intended to.

But later in my life, I saw a man land a series of incredible slam dunks at a university intramural league — and I came with him to a Bible study. That Bible study, and the friendship that came out of it, began to change my life. 

I saw the good he was doing with his life, and became curious about it. I’ve walked the path I know the “nones” can walk. That’s why they don’t worry me. Instead, I focus on my own life, my own church and my own community. 

Early in my ministry journey, I realized I needed to help cultivate a church culture that would’ve reached me. A lot of Christians take things like old hymns or traditional ways of doing things for granted — but to someone who’s been raised outside the church, or has lived outside the church for a long time, “old” is often alienating. 

I brought a friend from spin class to church with me one day, and he asked me, “Why do you sing all these old songs?” 

To be frank, I hadn’t thought about it until then. 

But at the Bay Area Christian Church I serve in Palo Alto, we’ve completely revamped our music program. We led a songwriting competition, and offered prizes to the writers who won.  Much of the music we use now is written by churchgoers — and overwhelmingly, young churchgoers. It’s church culture that’s responsive to their perspective. That’s important, especially if we want to reach religious “nones.” 

When we worry about “nones,” we should be concerned with whether or not we are living the sorts of lives that will make them curious about Jesus. We should strive for excellence, compassion, empathy and understanding.

We should seek to become people worth trusting, worth talking to and worth leaning on. We should get good at our jobs, good at doing the things we love, good at knowing people. And thankfully, church is — or at least can be — a great resource for improving all of these things. 

The church is not a refuge from the world, but a refuge for it. It is a place where those following Christ and those seeking Him can share His joy. It is a place where we can encourage each other to reach freedom in His love and excellence in our lives. But we can only be a refuge for the world if we are willing to sacrifice and serve, putting aside our personal agendas for the greater good of changing lives and the world.

This is just a glimpse of what the Church can be: Dynamic, diverse, loving, humble and connected. And such community will bear rich rewards. 

Living like Jesus in this way — for each other and with each other, offering freely and humbly from the abundance His love provides each of us — will forever change those involved. And it will attract those who’ve not yet joined. 

The “nones” will know us by our fruits, even if they know us as friends long before they ever know us as fellow Christians. Take advantage of the holiday season as a pretext for service: Give of your time, your talents, your experience and your friendship, without agenda, to those who need it. 

You never know whose interest you might pique, or why God uses you to do it. But He will.  

Russ Ewell is executive minister of the Bay Area Christian Church. A minister for more than 40 years, Russ’s teaching is rooted in providing hope for those turned off by tradition, and infused with vision for building the transformative church for which the 21st century public hungers.

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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